Prejudice and Racism
The prejudice that Puss has for African Americans is one of the major components of the story. Even before Puss speaks of his dislike for the black boy whom his granddaughter has befriended, his racism is apparent. He sees all the boys who make a living pushing chairs along the boardwalk as interchangeable. At this point in the story, Puss’s racism evidences itself in his complete disregard for these black boys who nevertheless perform a service he finds valuable.
When Puss realizes that his granddaughter has become friends with one of these boys, he lets her know in no uncertain terms that he does not want her to be friends with the boy because he ‘ ‘might do you some kind of harm.” He is hard-pressed, however, to explain what kind of harm that might be. He proposes that the black boy might “knock you down and take your money away.” Puss’s fears, however, are clearly unfounded. Earlier, the narrator had attested to her safety when she noted that wherever she went, her dogs always followed behind her.
Ironically, it is the dogs that cause the narrator’s accident when they scare the horse, which then throws the girl. Puss refuses to acknowledge the boy’s helpfulness and compassion. Instead, his racist attitude causes him to physically attack the black boy.
Boyle also comments on the social injustice of racism through the black boys themselves. All of the people who push the chairs are black boys. They have a hard, thankless job that is more suited to animals than humans. Through details like these that surround the black boy, Boyle shows the boys’ poverty.
Although the story is written from the point of view of an older narrator looking back on a childhood incident, it presents the child’s perception. The narrator beholds the world with a childlike fascination and credulity. For instance, the waves of the ocean became lazy women tiptoeing across the sand. The narration also reflects the purity of childhood. Instead of looking down at her friend because of his race, she compares his neck favorably to that of a white man. She embraces her friendship with the black boy, sensing that he can provide love and comfort. This would be unimaginable to the adult as typified by Puss, who could not look beyond the boy’s race and social circumstances.
The narrator, who maintains the more mature voice of the adult throughout, nevertheless remains true to the childlike persona. At the end of the story, as she recalls lying on the grass after her accident, her perceptions are those of a lonely child. She imagines her dead mother holding her and the wind crying over her pain. She feels “rocked in a cradle of love, cradled and rocked in sorrow.” When the black boy refers to her as his “little lamb,” he subtly emphasizes her youth and her need for a guiding adult figure.
The idea of an imaginary world figures prominently in the story. The black boy invents an entire world in which he has lived. In this world, he “could be almost anything I made up my mind to be.” For instance, he could have been a jockey, only he chose not to because they have to watch their diet so carefully. He also dreams up prettier surroundings. Instead of the boardwalk creaking above, he creates a time when all sorts of wild and exotic animals came down to the ocean edge. Although he acknowledges that this is a “mirage,” he also claims, “I seen camels, I seen zebras, … I might have caught any of one of them if I’d been inclined.”
Although the boy’s claims cannot be proven, there is truth to some of them. He may not have been a jockey, but he does ride the girl’s horse with surprising ease. The boy is extremely effective in his creation of the imaginary world, his escape from the impoverished, gritty world in which he really lives. Even the narrator is swayed, finding that every one of his words ‘ ‘seemed to fall into a cavern of beauty.”
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Kay Boyle – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.